Comment & analysis round-up
Quote of the day: â€œI was in contact with Tom Hicks and I was told we have the money because we were selling players for more than Â£20 million, so we had enough and we have enough. And if we sell or one or two players weâ€™ll have enough to sign another good player. I will not say which player but I have the support of at least one of the owners. I sent emails to all of them. He was clear that we had some money, he told me if I sell players, you can buy these players. So it isnâ€™t a question of money. We have problems because we are not doing things that, in my opinion, we have to do in terms of signing players. The question is that we have to be quicker and I told them these things four years ago and I continue thinking the same. That way we can save more money and be able to sign the targets we have.â€ â€“ Rafa Benitez.
Runner-up: â€œI am loyal to our supporters and people at the club but more than anything I am loyal to the players. We have built up a really happy relationship and strong spirit and I desperately want them to succeed. If they are going to do that I have to help them by bringing in new players who will strengthen the side and give us a better chance of closing the gap on those above us and being in Europe every season. That hasnâ€™t happened this summer and I feel I have let them down. At the end of last season I wouldnâ€™t have thought it possible we would be sitting here in August without a single new face. It hasnâ€™t been for the want of trying and I have to say the chairman, Bill Kenwright, has been fantastic. No-one has worked harder to get players in but it just hasnâ€™t happened yet. There are all sorts of reasons for it and some must remain private. But there arenâ€™t many clubs looking to sell players at the moment, and certainly some people who have been brokering deals for us have let us down quite badly.â€ â€“ David Moyes.
Today’s overview: It is a mixed bag of articles this morning following the first day of Premier League season 2008/9.
Wayne Rooney is the focus of a number of columnists due to his importance to both Manchester United and England. Paul Wilson sums his predicament up in The Observer: â€œHe might be 22 and married now, but we would all like to believe the boy wonder is still in there somewhere.â€
Also on United, the always excellent Patrick Barclay argues that Dimitar “Berbatov looks the key to the English title. United hold it â€“ and the European crown â€“ because Ronaldo scored 42 goals in a season. He cannot be expected to repeat that and, while Sir Alex Ferguson is entitled to look forward to Wayne Rooney and others improving with age, they will need a new factor to stay ahead of a refreshed Chelsea and, conceivably, Liverpool.â€
The other stand-out opinion piece of the day comes from Piers Morgan in the Mail on Sunday who questions Arsene Wenger and Arsenalâ€™s credentials for this season. “At the risk of sounding Hansen-esque, you can’t beat billionaire financed, money’s-no-object clubs with kids, however talented they are. Arsenal will doubtless delight and dazzle again this season, in the scintillating attacking style that Wenger loves so much. But come March, when it really matters, and when key players inevitably get injured, we just won’t have the experience, stamina or the collective footballing brain to win a major competition against massively better resourced, significantly older opponents.â€
Itâ€™s a Sunday so there must be some outlandish transfer rumours. Andrei Arshavinâ€™s move to Spurs is now in doubt, Didier Drogba may not stay at Chelsea, Chelsea are still after Robinho, Xabi Alonso wants out of Liverpool and Newcastle are chasing Javier Saviola.
Ahead of this afternoonâ€™s games there is much love for Frank Lampard although Rod Liddle breaks rank in the Sunday Times. “You might argue that Lampard is a symbol of the Premier League itself; its extraordinary, almost surreal, self-regard, its vanities and its hubris. Its limitless greed, its assumption that we are all in thrall to its brilliance.â€
The best of the rest includes the return of David James to The Observer (with another insightful piece), an article on why the Championship actually isnâ€™t that great and news of how the credit crunch is affecting fans who want to watch football down the pub.
Paul Wilson (Observer) features Wayne Rooney ahead of Manchester United’s opener today. “He does not have to convince Ferguson of his ability, or the Old Trafford spectators, or anyone else in England except Capello and perhaps a new partner. He just needs to do something in the present that reminds us all of the past. Something to show that he is not just an interchangeable member of the United front line, but the most naturally gifted striking talent this country has produced in years. Something to put a smile on his own face as well as everyone else’s. Something to cheer up Hunter Davies as he plots the next four installments of his biography. Something to stop Slaven Bilic and the rest of Croatia feeling sorry for English football. Something to make us all proud. He might be 22 and married now, but we would all like to believe the boy wonder is still in there somewhere.”
Patrick Barclay (Sunday Telegraph) looks at Fabio Capello’s striking options. “As ever, it seems, we await Michael Owen, who, having recovered from mumps, has some kind of calf injury that will keep him out of Newcastle’s match at Manchester United. Poor Owen, whose sporadic fitness has rendered him a one-man striker-shortage for years, can hardly be portrayed as the answer now. Rooney is Capello’s best hope â€“ and Ashton deserves the chance to partner him.”
Nick Townsend (Independent on Sunday) also writes of Wayne Rooney and his importance to England and Fabio Capello. “Capello is presumably as aware as the rest of us that the Manchester United man appears to have discovered a plateau of performance which, according to such a judge as Pele, lies below the peak he attained at Euro 2004. Not only is the Scouser still prone to over-reaction, which makes him a liability, but he still has not truly established his role with club or country. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted recently that his player had sacrificed himself for the team, and added: ‘We need to define Wayne’s role better.'”
Gab Marcotti (Sunday Herald) writes of Fabio Capello and England. “It takes time for a team to absorb such tactical innovations and its hard to see England offering up anything revolutionary in that department, not when Capello only gets to see his players for a few days every six weeks. So don’t expect any profound tactical changes on Wednesday. The plan, at least for the early part of qualifying, is to get the necessary results and develop a deeper understanding of the raw material at his disposal. And, despite protestations to the contrary, there is a lot of raw material to sift through before he finds his 23 for South Africa.”
Patrick Barclay (Sunday Telegraph) argues that Dimitar “Berbatov looks the key to the English title. United hold it â€“ and the European crown â€“ because Ronaldo scored 42 goals in a season. He cannot be expected to repeat that and, while Sir Alex Ferguson is entitled to look forward to Wayne Rooney and others improving with age, they will need a new factor to stay ahead of a refreshed Chelsea and, conceivably, Liverpool. Ferguson identified Berbatov many months ago and will not have changed his mind. Berbatov is a better footballer than Eric Cantona was. He has the combination of power and grace that marked out the great Marco van Basten and, alongside him, Rooney would become world-class.”
Andrew Warshaw in The Sunday Telegraph has more bad news for Spurs fans with the Andrei Arshavin move in doubt. “Although Spurs were originally understood to be ready to use the money from Dimitar Berbatov’s likely move to Manchester United to fund Arshavin’s purchase, Lachter said time was running out. ‘Zenit will not sell for anything less than 25 million euros,’ he told The Sunday Telegraph. ‘I have met Tottenham’s representatives and they will not go above 22 million. Andrei would love to go to England but if it stays like that, there will be no deal. Andrei would either stay at Zenit or go elsewhere.’ Tottenham sources privately confirmed the club will not budge and are ready to focus on other targets with two weeks left of the transfer window. Their refusal to make up the shortfall appears to be based on resale value since Arshavin would be past 30 at the end of his contract.”
Duncan Castles and Amy Lawrence reveal in the Observer that “Didier Drogba is still seeking a move away from Chelsea and has not given up hope of finding a new club before the end of the transfer window. Luiz Felipe Scolari wants to retain the Ivory Coast centre-forward in his new team, but the club’s new manager has left the matter in the hands of the board. Currently attempting to recover from a persistent knee problem that will keep him out of this afternoon’s Premier League meeting with Portsmouth, Drogba has been frustrated by the absence of formal bids for his services from Italy or Spain, despite making his desire to leave Stamford Bridge clear last season. According to sources close to the player, he ‘is as eager as ever to get out’ and has informed Scolari directly of his intentions.”
Rob Beasley (News of the World) reports “Chelsea have made a new Â£23.6million bid for Real Madridâ€™s Brazil star Robinho. Itâ€™s almost Â£5m more than their last offer and will sorely tempt the Spanish giants, despite the fact president Ramon Calderon wants to keep him. But Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari is keen to capture his countryman and will be backed all the way by Roman Abramovichâ€™s billions. Scolari believes Robinho will add a different dimension to his squad and provide Abramovich with the fantasy football the Chelsea owner demands.”
Steve Tongue writes of the bond that has already developed between Frank Lampard and Phil Scolari in the Independent on Sunday. “The admiration appears to be mutual. Asked to compare the newcomer with Jose Mourinho, whom he was sorely tempted to join up with again at Internazionale, Lampard said: ‘You could see Scolari had a slightly different character the way he managed Portugal, the way he held himself on the line. That was good to see. We all like to see that kind of passion. Once the real thing starts you’ll see that even more, how much he wants to be successful.'”
And the focus is also on Lampard and his uncle Harry Redknapp in a piece by Duncan White in the Sunday Telegraph. “When his nephew, Frank Lampard, was deciding between signing a new contract with Chelsea and leaving for Inter Milan this summer, Redknapp advised him to do the former. When he is handed the Chelsea team-sheet this afternoon, the Portsmouth manager might momentarily curse the uncle’s good counsel: Lampard the player has scored against Redknapp’s teams in the last three seasons.”
Rod Liddle breaks rank on Frank Lampard in the Sunday Times. “You might argue that Lampard is a symbol of the Premier League itself; its extraordinary, almost surreal, self-regard, its vanities and its hubris. Its limitless greed, its assumption that we are all in thrall to its brilliance. We armchair Premier League viewers remember Frankie when he played for England – the lethargy, the witlessness, the shots from 20 yards out dispatched somewhere towards the T-shirt sellers 500 yards from the ground, the refusal to take the remotest responsibility when England had lost to the Turks and Caicos Islands, or whoever. The notion that embedded itself in our minds: actually, heâ€™s not that good, is he? If we were being kind we might argue that it is not Lampardâ€™s fault – or Ashley Coleâ€™s – but the inevitable consequence of the culture in which he is immersed.”
Piers Morgan in the Mail on Sunday isn’t convinced by Arsenal. “At the risk of sounding Hansen-esque, you can’t beat billionaire financed, money’s-no-object clubs with kids, however talented they are. Arsenal will doubtless delight and dazzle again this season, in the scintillating attacking style that Wenger loves so much. But come March, when it really matters, and when key players inevitably get injured, we just won’t have the experience, stamina or the collective footballing brain to win a major competition against massively better resourced, significantly older opponents. Wenger’s strategy of going younger, younger, younger has made us a club in seemingly permanent ‘transition’. And we need to stop transiting and actually arrive somewhere. He must take that bulging chequebook we keep being told he has and buy some older, experienced players.”
Joe Lovejoy (Sunday Times) speaks with Jermain Defoe ahead of Pompey’s visit to Stamford Bridge. “He will be up against his England teammate John Terry this afternoon. ‘Itâ€™s difficult to play against JT,’ Defoe said. ‘He has this presence and is very strong. When heâ€™s in that team they are a different proposition.’â€
Chris Bacombe in the News of the World reports that Xabi Alonso is unhappy at Anfield. “Alonso has become disillusioned with his managerâ€™s refusal to back down on his pursuit of the Â£18million replacement from Villa. And although the 26-year-old Spaniard is now cup-tied from Europe, he has decided his relationship with Benitez (below) is beyond repair. Alonso was furious to discover he had been offered to several European clubs without his knowledge over the summer â€” many of whom he would never have entertained joining. He feels he has been treated with a lack of respect.”
Michael Walker (Independent on Sunday) features Newcastle and Kevin Keegan ahead of their visit to Old Trafford today. “‘I do still need three or four,’ Keegan said. ‘I think we will get at least two more and by the end of the deadline we’ll have two more fit. By then that squad will be strong enough and good enough for me and, hopefully, for Newcastle. I’ve had 100 per cent backing in the market. We’re still a small squad but we’re doing something now. There’s no shortage of endeavour.’ Or support. But another drubbing today will erode goodwill. Somehow portrayed as impatient despite no League title since 1927, Newcastle fans are watching and waiting. They are on the cusp.”
Stewart Robson (Sunday Telegraph) looks ahead to the tactical battles that Newcastle will face this afternoon. “Fabricio Coloccini could make his debut as a substitute today but can he help Steven Taylor with his game understanding? Taylor is wholehearted, but his admirable enthusiasm hides his many deficiencies. Against United, and it doesn’t matter who is playing up front, this new partnership will have to cope with clever movement and individual brilliance rather than physical presence. If they fail to gel immediately and don’t see danger quickly enough, they could get off to a disastrous start.”
Aiden Magee (News of the World) runs with the exclusive that “Newcastle will launch a raid for Real Madrid star Javier Saviola to give boss Kevin Keegan the boost he has been demanding. Toon chiefs have been plotting to bring the World Cup star to St Jamesâ€™s Park for a week and are now ready to sign him on a season-long loan. The Argentina playmaker, 26, is just the kind of quality signing Keegan has wanted after a summer of off-field turbulence. Saviola is out of favour at Real, with his agent making it clear he would relish a change of scenery with an eye on a permanent move.”
Martin O’Neill talks to Steve Tongue about player power in the Independent on Sunday: “Players are in control and it’s crazy. In our day we yearned for a halfway house, but it’s gone miles in the other direction and I don’t think that’s right. A contract’s a contract and it should be worth something at some stage.”
Joe Lovejoy in The Sunday Times also speaks with Martin O’Neill. “Senior football correspondents lunching with Sky TV in midweek were polled on which outsider was likeliest to break up the cosy cartel the ‘Big Four’ have established in the Premier League. The vote was roughly 50-50 between Tottenham and Aston Villa, which surprised Martin Oâ€™Neill, for one. When I told him, the Villa manager shot back: ‘I know who youâ€™ll have gone for – Spurs.’ He is right, but Oâ€™Neill and his team, who overachieved in finishing sixth last season, are stronger for their various acquisitions over the summer and well equipped to continue the improvement started when the quirky, loquacious Ulster-man replaced David Oâ€™Leary two years ago.”
Patrick Barclay compares Thaksin Shinawatra and Randy Lerner. “Lerner may or may not walk away with a profit in the end, but for now he has created an atmosphere of fresh air, an environment fit for Martin O’Neill as one of the Premier League’s brightest and most popular managers strives to bridge the gap between the elite and the rest. For what it is worth, I believe Villa, who won 4-1 in Iceland on Thursday while defiantly cup-tieing the Liverpool target Gareth Barry, have more chance than any other club of reaching Christmas in a position to do that. And City? They could be in seasonal mood: waiting for a saviour.”
Jeremy Wilson and Derick Allsop have more financial woe for Manchester City in the Sunday Telegraph. “Owner Thaksin Shinawatra currently has Â£800m of assets frozen in Thailand, but The Sunday Telegraph can reveal that the club have tried to ease any cash-flow issues by securing a loan with the Standard Bank plc. City have taken the loan against the money they are due from the Premier League, including the basic award fund payment to all the clubs, the overseas broadcast rights and the merit award that is based on their league position. Last season City earned Â£40m through their television revenue and merit award. News of the loan, which was taken out at the end of July, will cause fresh questions over the playing budget available to new manager Mark Hughes. It has also provoked alarm among supporters over the club’s financial position.”
Chris Bascombe (News of the World) analyses the goings-on at Manchester City ahead of their Premier League opener today. “The more City try and fail to duplicate the winning United formula, the more preposterous they look in contrast to their self- assured neighbours. United and City may share similar postcodes, but they occupy different stratospheres on footballâ€™s global map. One offers a lesson in how to expertly run a business, the other in how to cock it up. Like many northern cities, Manchester is colourful contradiction which their football clubs embody. Head in the right direction and youâ€™re thrilled by vibrant regeneration. Take a tram a few miles from the city centre and the crumbling remains of former industrial greatness are simply inescapable. Going the wrong way is the difference between splendour or perpetual grimness. In travelling the symbolic 4.6 miles from Old Trafford to Eastlands, Hughes has been given a view of both worlds. He must feel like drawing the curtains in his office.”
Jonathan Northcroft features Richard Dunne in The Sunday Times. “Being dwarfed by Midtjylland had Hughes incandescent again. He complained about playersâ€™ effort and fitness levels and expects serious improvement against Aston Villa today. Richard Dunne, Cityâ€™s long-serving/suffering captain, is treating with weary equanimity the crisis headlines that have somehow enveloped his club before it has even kicked off in the Premier League. “Itâ€™s strange because itâ€™s not new at Manchester City, it happens all the time. The managerâ€™s told us all this week: â€˜The game, the gameâ€™. Obviously we hear other things, but we keep our own thoughts, itâ€™s nothing to do with us,â€ Dunne said.”
David James, back in his weely column in The Observer, is unhappy with yet another change in the match ball. “New season, new haircut, new balls. Only I wish we didn’t have to have new balls. We can’t seem to go a season or an international tournament these days without a new ball design being introduced. For all the impressive science jargon that accompanies them I cannot help wondering whether these so-called improvements are actually doing the game any good. Over the summer I took part in the Free Kick Master tournament in Houston, Texas – not a location renowned for its football I know, but a chance to participate in a great concept. While I was over there the organisers brought up a statistic that got me thinking: not a single goal was scored direct from a free kick at Euro 2008. That’s baffling, unbelievable even, when you think of how many free-kick specialists there are – I’ll be facing a few at Stamford Bridge this afternoon.”
Ian Ridley (Mail on Sunday) wants the 16 “other” teams in the Premier League to step up this season. “Ten years ago, Arsenal won the title with 78 points. It has not happened since and that total is nowhere near enough, with 90 the benchmark over the past five seasons. It is partly because Champions League money has set the top four further apart by giving them a depth of squad that means they still have enough might to win the lesser games, but also down to a propensity among the rest to give in too readily, damaging the spectacle and integrity of the competition.”
Lisa Bachelor (Observer) reveals another reason why the credit crunch is affecting football. “Football fans hoping to catch this season’s Premier League matches at their neighbourhood pub should check that their local is still showing the game. The soaring cost of Sky subscriptions has resulted in 20 per cent of bars abandoning the service over the past five years, according to pub trade group ALMR, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. The group claims Sky’s premium package price – around Â£13,000 per annum – combined with the credit crunch effect of higher utility bills and fewer customers is forcing pubs to ditch the service.”
Andy Dunn in the News of the World compares Premier League players with Great Britain’s Olympians. “I have already suggested that football has no place at the Olympics. But could our footballers learn anything from being at the Games? Or just witnessing them first- hand? Yes. How to win and lose with humility, for starters. Michael Phelps is as unassuming, gracious and modest a young man as you could wish to meet. And while there have been splashes of dissent across this vast Olympic canvas, there is none of the snarling, foul-mouthed disregard for officialdom that is a running sore in our national sport. Belatedly, the FA have recognised this and have launched a campaign. Respect, it is called. That is a word our Premier League and England footballers would learn a whole lot more about at an Olympic Games.”
Paul Wilson (Observer) questions some myths surrounding the Championship. “It has become accepted orthodoxy that the Championship is the fourth most popular league in Europe. After the Bundesliga, the Premier League and La Liga, it is frequently claimed, more people watch the Championship than Serie A, Ligue 1, the Eredivisie and all the other European leagues. Aidy Boothroyd, the Watford manager, said so last week. Paul Rawnsley, director of the sports business group at the accountants Deloitte and Touche, welcomed the news that last weekend’s Championship gates averaged more than 20,000 with the observation that the Championship was Europe’s fourth most watched league in 2007-08. Yet statistics can lie, and it is also true to say the average gate in the Championship last season was 17,028, which means it was not even the most popular second division in Europe (the average gate in 2. Bundesliga was 17,207), let alone better-attended than Serie A (23,186) or France’s (21,817).”